On the Robotics Revolution: P.W. Singer’s “Wired for War”

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There have been a number of interesting articles spotlighting two growing/related trends that I have been following: robotics and drones. Most recent was Paul Rand’s filibuster calling attention to the risk of US drone strikes on US soil. As a result, I thought it would be timely to repost my book review on Wired for War, first posted on Venturebeat.

In the book, the author Peter Singer discusses how military funding is driving dramatic advances in robotics and robotic warfare. In turn, this is rapidly reducing the costs of robotics and drones for eventual commercial use.  Recently, 60 Minutes did a piece  on the automation of the work environment through robots.  They pose an interesting question: what will happen when robots displace more workers than can be reabsorbed by new jobs?  How will we manage the economy when producers require little labor as well as a reduced number of skilled and white collar workers?  Wired for War discusses how this reality is changing the military in a very real way today.

I tweeted a New York Times article about a related trend: attempts and new rules against drones being used to monitor people (in the US!).   We can expect more drone/people tracking activity as these and related technologies – sensors, cameras, lenses, batteries, visual/data crunching hardware – continue to decline in price and footprint.

If you question whether these robotic/drone devices will have the agility for meaningful task: check out this video on quad-copter acrobatics. And here is a demonstration of how computer coordinated quad-copters can build skyscrapers in the future.

These articles highlight how fast these technologies are becoming mainstream and signal rapid commercial market growth in the future.

If you’ve been keeping an eye out for emerging market opportunities, it might interest you that robotics is one of today’s fastest growing technologies. Innovation takes place primarily in the battlefield (Iraq and Afghanistan) and through defense contracts, so most of the developments taking
place are not yet widely known. In “Wired for War,” author P.W. Singer explains how this progress will dramatically change the way that war is fought.

Science fiction fans will be struck at how much art and reality are converging. The author explains why this transformation is happening now, accelerating after 9/11, and covers some implications including our future propensity for war.  Billions of development and procurement
dollars and the continued price/performance improvement of the low cost off-the-shelf hardware from which robots are built means that the capabilities of inexpensive robots will soon begin to dazzle us in the domestic market, as far-fetched as that may seem.

Robots are getting cheaper, faster and smarter – really fast. Your autofocus camcorder lens offers the same technology as robots being deployed in Iraq. Common, low cost, USB connectors are used for robot arms and appendages. The same technologies that deliver reduced size and improved performance in PCs, consumer electronics and smart phones will deliver exponential progress in robotics. 9/11 changed military interest levels in unmanned systems, when (for example) an unmanned Predator armed with a hellcat missile destroyed several key Al-Qaeda operatives.

The US government got robotics religion in 2001. At that time, the Senate Armed Services Committee mandated that one-third of all attack aircraft be unmanned within the decade, and a third of all ground combat vehicles be driverless by 2015. At the core of the shift is U.S. public resistance to American casualties on the battlefield.

IRobot is an example of a newly public robotics company capitalizing on this revolution. The company has two market-leaders in radically divergent applications. Roomba, a robotic domestic vacuum cleaner, has sold millions of units. Its predecessor, though, was developed for the Air Force to collect cluster bomblets from airfields.

IRobot also sells Packbot, a leading bomb disposal robot, first introduced in the 9/11 World Trade Center rescue effort. Thousands now support both Iraq and Afghanistan military efforts in the field, delivering hundreds of millions in sales, and saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Packbots have also been adapted to applications including field rescue (Medbots), armed with liquid bandages, morphine and diagnostic equipment.

In the Air Force, the most dramatic shift that’s taking place is unmanned drones. Cadets
with extensive video game experience often do well at controlling them remotely
from locations half way around the world in Nevada. Systems are being
designed more and more like video games to help users pilot them,
processing the large amount of data information required to do so
effectively from a long distance.

In the sea, robotic ships are being developed that require little or no crew, as well as
submersibles that can explore areas that humans can’t. The BP oil spill
recovery effort provides a timely civilian demonstration of what underwater
robots can accomplish.

For the future – the military has begun field-testing robotic soldiers:  Packbots and other
Explosive Ordinance Disposal (or EOD) robots armed with weapons
for selective operations.  One day, squads of robotic soldiers headed
by a human squad leader may effect raids and similar operations.  Robotic
soldiers are more accurate and lack the human emotional challenges facing their
human counterparts.

Today’s robots can only operate on about 30 percent of battlefield terrains but designs are
being tested that overcome the limitations of robot ‘legs’ and make robotic
soldiers a reality.  The first soldier may have three or four legs to deal
with balance and special terrain issues, looking more like an armed dog.

Clearly there are questions and repercussions: How will this new battlefield help or challenge
American security cover; How will our enemies react? Will America (or others
with this technology) be judicious with force if its own troops are not at

For entrepreneurs, the lesson is clear: Robotics will be a large growth
market.  We will see more opportunities emerge alongside these first
applications in the military, but also in vertical industrial applications
where a hazard exists – or even household uses.

Be on the lookout for single function applications that can be effectively
replaced (biohazards, nuclear plant maintenance) or by remote monitoring
with increased safety or process improvement.  The best robotic
applications are jobs with the three ‘D’s – dirty, dull and dangerous.

At a glance:
TitleWired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in
the 21st Century
Authors: P.W. Singer
Publisher: Penguin Group
Length: 512 pages


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